Now in its seventh year, I’m not sure how the Chelan Century Challenge can get any better. In my opinion, they have the perfect route with the perfect scenery, a perfect weather window over on the dry Eastside of the state, and the perfect support. What else can the organizers do? The ride even has “perfect” uniqueness in that there are three loops that total up to 103 miles, and each loop returns to the start/finish area. Need to grab some sunscreen or a fresh jersey? No problem. I can’t think of another event that is set up this way. To top it off, I think the Chelan Century is probably the hardest event in addition to being the best. Yes, it’s shorter than Ramrod and the High Pass Challenge, but with over 8000’ of climbing and the epic McNeil Canyon, this ride is a handful. McNeil Canyon is certainly harder than anything you will encounter at Rainier or either side of St. Helens.

The Chelan Century Challenge is put on by the all volunteer Chelan Rotary, of which Lester Cooper is the president. Despite the Chelan Rotarians not really being “bike people” (at least in the beginning), I believe they are running the best overall cycling event in Washington State. With ridership up 38% year over year, I would have to call Lester a “Promoter Extraordinaire.” But when you have a quality product like the Chelan Century it’s pretty easy to get excited about what you are doing.

There is just no way to discuss this event without focusing on McNeil Canyon. As great as the whole route is, without any semblance of doubt McNeil is the Crux of the whole show. McNeil is a beast of a climb, to use an expression that will be overworked massively during the upcoming Tour de France broadcast. At our Cycle U Chelan Skills and Hills Cycling Camps, people always ask about goals for time to climb McNeil. I break it down pretty simply: less than 60 minutes is good, less than 50 is very good, anything around 45 is great, and anybody that drops down towards 40 minutes is a fantastic climber.

Sometimes at camp the talk turns to what a really good climber would do on McNeil. I’ve been guesstimating that Alberto Contador could do McNeil Canyon in about 25 minutes. It’s common knowledge that the best climbers in the world can climb about 6000’ per hour, or 100’ per minute. McNeil gains around 2400’ in altitude so 25 minutes seems like a safe guess. Just for kicks, I went to the online power calculators Bikecalculator and Kruezotter and ran the #’s:

Using a 5’8″ height, 135# rider weight, 20# bike weight (including clothing, etc.), 0 mph wind, and an average wattage of 400, the projected time would be 24:47. Actually, the best climbers in the world can climb a little more than a rate of 6000’ per hour when the climb is less than thirty minutes long. My guess is if they held a Tour de France time trial up McNeil someone would do it 22-23 minutes, or about half of what I think of as a “great” time. Yes, professional athletes are professionals for a reason, and this is true in any sport. The best in the world at any sporting endeavor perform at an extremely high level.

Keep all this in mind when you are watching the Tour. Or the next time you attack McNeil Canyon. For some, that will be on June 23rd of next year when the 2012 Chelan Century Challenge takes place. For me, I’ll tackle McNeil at next years cycling camp if not sooner.

I had lunch with Lester this week, and he tells me that in the less than a week since the event ended, he has had feedback for 50 (albeit small) improvements for the 2012 version of the Chelan Century. How can you make an already great event any better? Well, there is the answer. Listen to the riders, focus on quality, and focus on the tiniest of details. That will get the job done.


The arid landscape of central Washington isn’t especially spectacular, yet its muted features, orchard lands, watersheds and communities offer much to enjoy, including a top notch destination cycling event called the Chelan Century Challenge.

Lake Chelan lies in a scalloped bowl of buff-colored hillsides sculpted by the languid Columbia River. Sparse ponderosa pines outline the spines of this rugged terrain and clumps of purple vetch bend in the wind along roadsides. Little towns exist in this region. They are agricultural and tourism communities, situated among acres of apple and cherry orchards which are quickly being replaced by crops of rambling vacation homes. Along the picturesque city streets and country roads stand schools, grocery stores, fruit sorting warehouses, bunkhouses, gift shops, coffee houses, salons, and realtor offices. Landscapers haul trailers of fertilizer and topsoil and lawn mowers to the next client’s home, groups of teenaged hip-hoppers gather at the park to listen to rap music and watch each other shoot hoops, vacationing Seattleites amble in and out of shops, and migrant workers husband the tender green fruits in the fields.

In June, I saw these scenes go by in slow motion from the saddle of my road bike during the 2011 Chelan Century Challenge. A group of dedicated Rotary Club members host and manage the ride to raise money for charity. My sisters, my mom, and I met one of these friendly folks on the morning after the ride. When we met her, this woman, elegant and stylish, was working in her downtown gallery where locally thrown pottery, wood carvings, woven scarves, and beaded jewelry decked the walls. Later, we met another volunteer in the kitchen store and she offered us fudge samples while telling us she and her husband had been flaggers at one of the intersections.

The Chelan Century opened at 7:00 a.m. with very little pomp, just an enthusiastic MC declaring to all us early risers that we could be on our way. I rode with partners for the day, two of my sisters, Saree and Paige. As we set out, our bikes were stocked with full water bottles, energy gels, and sandwiches and the brilliant sunshine warmed the air.

We began our tour of the lake region with a steady uphill through cool pine forests. Sandy soil supported a fringe of undergrowth and birds gawked at us as we pedaled upward. Riders were everywhere, strung out along the hills, chatting, pacing, pedaling around each other. The hills eventually topped out on a high shelf where vacation homes enjoyed expansive views to the lake below. My sisters and I called out encouragement to one another and took turns leading, then drafting. The descent through the neighborhoods brought us into the town of Manson, then on to the park and the end of our first loop.

The second loop started out as before, with an exit through the main gate of the park, then took an immediate turn up a busy city street, into neighborhoods, and then toward the Columbia River. We climbed steadily out of the populated tourist lakeshore destinations and into the high country where rocky outcrops punctured the fields and barbed wire enclosed pastures. We rode for miles along narrow back roads, passed by occasional pickups. We took a turn and suddenly, were plummeting down a steep incline toward the Columbia River. At a high overlook, Saree mandated a photo stop and we took turns clicking pictures of each other with the water reflecting the bright sun behind us. Then we drank more water and continued the fast descent to the river’s edge. At the bottom, we formed a pace line and pedaled in unison ten miles on to an aid station.

By one o’clock we were at the base of the fabled McNeil Canyon climb. There, a suspension bridge crossed the Columbia and cyclists populated the narrow shoulders coming and going. The three of us tackled the hill with determination, leaning our heads down and pedaling. It was to be the most grueling seven miles I’ve ever ridden, with constant climbing and several 12% grades. I stopped along a guard rail and Saree passed me with a nod. I carried on. I passed Paige. Then she passed me. We crept along the grade all the way to the top. The view from the top was vast—the country spread out like rippling waves of fabric. There, we ate, drank, rested, stretched, then pointed our skinny front tires downward and released the brakes. I went first – and careened down, pulling my brakes when my eyes began watering so much I couldn’t see the road. We rendezvoused at the base of the hill, in the parking lot of a fruit packing plant. Six miles to go to the end of the second loop.

The Team above the Columbia River
We pressed on, up the grade on the other side of the Columbia. Then, back through the commercial district of Chelan and into the park entrance. It was 5:00 p.m., seventy miles and ten hours after we’d started our tour. After resting and decompressing from the most recent pulls, all three of us decided to call it a day. We sat in the park, letting the sun restore us, drinking water and more water, listening to other cyclists chatter. Later that evening, after eating dinner and celebrating our finish with our family members, we sat in the hot tub and watched the sky grow dark over the lake. A chill floated through the air and we sank down deeper into the bath, the ridgeline above us dark against the dusky night sky.

View from the hot tub, Lake Chelan
Ride Information:

The Chelan Century Challenge website has great maps of the route. Following are the route’s distances and elevation gains.

1st Loop, Manson: (29.9 miles, 2,351’ elevation gain)

2nd Loop, McNeil Canyon: (40.8 miles, 3,082’ elevation gain)

3rd Loop, Navarre Coulee: (31.5 miles, 2,628’ elevation gain)


All can be forgiven when the sun shines. It was 75 degrees and clear for our ride.


Chelan chapter of Rotary International

Places to Stay:

There is no shortage of lodging options. Our extended family of 8 found a beautiful rental house on the lake with five bedrooms and four bathrooms located about fourteen miles from the start line for a very reasonable cost (when split among our four families). Check with Chelan Vacation Rentals. Bed and breakfasts and hotels are also plentiful in Chelan and Manson.

Other Outdoor Activities:

Boating, swimming, site-seeing, sun-tanning, walking. If you choose boating, be aware that, at least in the southern end of Lake Chelan, motorized boats are not restricted, so if you are paddling, you’ll need to get fairly far away from the south end of the lake for quiet.


That’s David Longdon, who does the cool Seattle-area cycling blog for the Seattle P-I, nearing the top of McNeil Canyon, the featured spot of bother on the spectacular Chelan Century Challenge ride. He’s a little less than a mile from the top, a stretch that’s consistently 11-percent with a bit of 14-percent thrown in for fun. He, like many riders I saw yesterday, was rocking a SRAM Apex cassette and taking full advantage of its pie-plate sized 32-tooth gear. But of course, there’s more to the Chelan Century Challenge than McNeil Canyon so enough about that for now.

The ride’s slightly more than 100 miles are split up into three loops–a Manson loop on the north side of Lake Chelan, a McNeil Canyon loop that makes its way down to the Columbia River and then heads up toward the Waterville Plateau and finally, a Navarre Coulee loop which does an up-down to the Columbia, then an up-down which spits you out on the south shore of Lake Chelan about 10 miles west of town.
With two epic bodies of water–Lake Chelan and the mighty-as-hell Columbia–as well as those wonderful Eastern Washington dry-side pine forests and craggy canyons, the route can’t help but be incredibly scenic. Loop 1 was perhaps my favorite, yanking you up, up, and up on the north side of Lake Chelan before delivering you lakeside via a series of winding, no-traffic roads through orchards and vineyards. These were some fun descents. (I’d never been to this Manson side of the lake before and was just wowed by it; one suggestion though for the town fathers: change the town’s name. And don’t change it to something like ‘Bundy’ either.)

After 30 miles and about 2,400 feet of ups, we headed for McNeil and loop 2, which was 40-miles long. I’d ridden most of the loop 1 on my own and figured I’d hook up with a group for the 20-mile jaunt to the base of the canyon. Sit in the back, get a free ride as it were, save my energy for the big beastie. Which pretty much didn’t happen. For whatever reason, except for about 5 miles just before the McNeil climb when I hooked up with Longdon and three (or four?) members of Seattle’s High Performance Cycling club, I rode the entire route by myself. Kinda surprised me. Wonder if it’s because I have that disease that makes me leave as early as I can on rides like this. Most people probably prefer a later start but I want to get at it, and get ‘er done, as it were. (And stop as little as possible along the way; thus my lack of photos on Loop 1 and 3.)

At McNeil, we all went our separate paces and headed for the top. Mile markers have it at a 7-mile climb but it’s really the last 5 miles that make one question one’s sanity. Though to be honest, I love to climb so I dig this hill. There’s something about finding that deliberate, methodical rhythm within me that I find … I don’t know what the word is, maybe it’s what other people get from meditation or yoga or prayer or whatever, all I know is that it’s a head/mind/soul (?) space that I love.

Weather-wise we were blessed–sunny, not too warm, and though sweat was dripping in my eyes while I climbed and I could feel my arms getting sunburned, because we’ve had such a dreary wet spring in Bellingham, it felt glorious. Aid stations and volunteers were great throughout the day too, and located in key spots–at top, bottom and middle of McNeil Canyon, for instance.

I’d had much agita about the descent but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d remembered it from my previous ride. Then, I was by myself, just three months after collarbone surgery and the landscape, while beautiful seemed a tad tumbleweed ‘n’ rattlesnake scary. Today though (yesterday), I was one of hundreds and felt more comfortable letting the Tarmac Pro hit speeds of 40-plus mph. (Saw Steve Noble heading up while I was heading down; only time I saw him all day.)

Upon returning to Chelan we embarked on Loop 3, up Highway 97 Alt., then after blazing through a tunnel, find ourselves once again beside the Columbia River. Upon which, we immediately headed back up toward (or through?) Navarre Coulee. This was a gradual hill, which sorta climbed, sorta didn’t, and with sorta a headwind and sorta not, I found myself at about the 81-mile mark wondering if I was going to bonk. But eventually, after some salty potatoes, a turkey-ham wrap thang from the aid station (as well as Gatorade fortified with Enduralyes Fizz–I kinda like ’em), I made it up the last hill and after another fast descent found myself on the shores of Lake Chelan with about 10 miles left.

Found myself aided by a generous tailwind too, which, after some quick calculations in my head, made me realize if I brought it home in strong fashion I could average 15 mph for this thang. Not that that’s particularly fast but given the hills (it’d end up gaining 7,800 feet), given that I rode just about all of it by myself (and thus had no draft to benefit from), given that I’m not a time-trial guy, given that I don’t have a big endurance engine like a lot of the people I ride with, given that I’m on the cusp of 50, given that I’m from N.J., given that I can’t hit lefties very well, given that … I was psyched. So I hammered, as it were, my Garmin GPS reading 22-, 24-, 21-miles per hour and I brought her home in 6:38 (ride time) for 101 miles. (15.2 mph.)

Here’s a caveat (think that’s the word I want): the course calls for a ridiculously steep 1.5-mile hill that climbs 600 feet at about the 98-mile mark, but I skipped it. It just seemed dumb and too painful and unnecessary at that point. My sense is that a lot of people skipped it. (Or perhaps I’m rationalizing it to myself.)

Anyway, an amazing event. I highly recommend it. As I was riding the first loop, I was thinking that the Chelan area might just be the most beautiful place to ride in the state. And that the Chelan Century Challenge might just be my favorite organized ride. This or RAMROD. Close call.


August 05, 2013

The Chelan Century Challenge has been on my “B” list for about three years ever since High Performance Cyclingteammate Carol Noble-Potts mentioned it during the Flying Wheels Century, which she was using as a training ride for this event. I originally had other plans for the weekend (the Mountain Lakes Challenge in Ashland, OR), but those plans fell through and–lucky for me–the Chelan ride popped to the top of the list. And–also lucky for me–I was able to find a place to sleep in Chelan the night before. While the ride itself is stupendously organized, there is a dearth of bed-space in Chelan and adjacent towns.

Members of the Cascade Bicycle Club*s High Performance Cycling Team all smiles at the start of the 2011 edition of the Chelan Century. I felt ill-prepared for what was in store: 100+ miles and ~8,000′ of climbing. While my early season got off to a decent start despite lousy weather–I had done a few races in March and April, and a gorgeous sunny 80-mile ride with Tom Meloy in mid-April–I spent the second half of April on a sailboat in Belize. My Caribbean “training program” consisted of splashing around with coral reef creatures. Since returning from Belize the longest ride I’d done was under 70 miles. There is a BIG difference between a 70 and a 100+ mile ride. I knew the climbing was going to be hard, but I felt like I just didn’t have enough saddle time for a 100-mile outing. I decided to jump into the deep end of the swimming pool anyway.

This event consists of three loops each of which returns to Don Morse Park on the east shore of Lake Chelan just north and west of Chelan’s main street. The first loop circles to the north of Chelan and returns via the town of Manson; the 2nd loop circles to the NE of Chelan and includes an out and back up the infamous ~7-mile McNeil Canyon climb; and the 3rd loop circles to the west up and over Navarre Coulee Rd.

The plan was to start with buddies from the High Performance Cycling Team (aka “HPC”) and go with the flow; we had enough folks in our group that I figured I could find riding companions all day long regardless of how the ride went for me–I felt unsure about my fitness and that a complete bonk or meltdown of the legs was possible. About 10 or 11 of us rolled out at the official 7AM start.

The first “Manson Loop” was a gorgeous ~30 mile warm-up. After a fairly strenuous ~4 mile climb, the route becomes a roller coaster ride through vineyards and finishes with a tailwind-aided return to the park. The legs felt good and I managed to stay with the front end of the HPC group, which was a foursome for most of the day.

With Lake Chelan as a backdrop, riders struggle up an exceptionally steep section of McNeil Canyon.  After negotiating the streets of Chelan, the second “McNeil Loop” rolls through scenic farmland and yields an amazing vista of the Columbia River, followed by a thrilling descent down to Hwy 97. The highway runs along the west side of the river, which looked like it was was boiling due to this year’s high water flow. The stretch along Hwy 97 was busy with fast-moving traffic and semi-tractor trailors that distracted from the views, but it was very conducive to paceline riding and we zipped along with each rider taking 30-60 second pulls at the front of the group. Up ahead I could see the distinctive jersey of Mike McQuaide, who has written several guidebooks, and who helped organize a fantastic 100-mile group ride from Everson to Artist Point last year. Mike joined the paceline and our foursome became a fivesome up to the start of the McNeil climb.  Bellingham area man *svelte* Mike McQuaide powers past the 6-mile mark on the McNeil Canyon Climb during Chelan Century 2011.

The McNeil climb rises about 3,100′ in ~7 miles (though the seriously difficult climbing happens in the final ~5 miles), and the event web site says the climb is a consistent 12%. I’m not sure about that, but myGarmin 500 never went below 8% and there were stretches of 14%. For this reason I rode my “adventure bike”–a 2003-ish Trek 2300 outfitted with a new SRAM Apex group with a compact crankset (50-34), and an 11-32 cassette. I figure if a big cassette can work forAlberto Contador on the Monte Zoncolan, it can work for the average me on a hard century ride. I’d estimate that I spent 80% of the McNeil climb in the 34-32.

The climb took us about an hour, and after a quick regroup at the end-point, we enjoyed an exhilarating descent at speeds well over 40 mph. Getting back to the park in Chelan involved a comparatively small but not insignificant climb up from the Columbia River.

The third and final “Navarre Coulee” loop leaves Chelan to the southwest via Hwy 97 and trends uphill for about 2 miles, which was enough for me to pop loose from my HPC buddies–I rode solo for the final miles of the day. As an example of the exemplary support on this ride, Hwy 97 has a tunnel about 10 miles out, and they had a volunteer stationed at the entrance to push the “bicycle warning” button. No need to dismount and press the button! I gave the volunteer a “thumbs up” and sped through the tunnel. The final climb of the day (for me) stair-stepped up Navarre Coulee Rd. leading to a gorgeous forested “summit” view of Lake Chelan followed by a windy descent to the lake. The final ~12 miles on S. Lakeshore Rd. was a tailwind-aided time-trial through mostly flat terrain. My legs felt great given the punishment I’d put them through for the last 5+ hours and I sped through the home stretch at 21-26 mph.

The ride organizers do offer a final bit of pain that I opted NOT to do. Once back in town from the Navarre Coulee loop riders can climb Chelan Butte Rd., which adds another ~2 miles and ~700′ of climbing. Given how I went into the ride expecting disaster, I wanted to finish on a positive note and called it a day. HPC teammate Jeff Sorrentino who did do the extra climb summed it up: “…the ‘bonus’ climb was completely contrived and unnecessary – about a mile up of leg-crushing 10-15%. Nice view at the top, but no better than the top of Coulee. Definitely not recommended…esp. since the route covers 100mi without that ‘bonus’…”“

With the 3-loop configuration, riders can choose to do one, two, or all three loops, and if you feel you are in over your head on the McNeil climb, you can simply turn around!

Although this ride was on my “B” list last week, it’s on my “A” list now.  I’m a convert. And I agree with Jeff Sorrentino: “…Chelan Century is better than RAMROD since the first (my favorite) and third loops were far more enjoyable than the slogs from/to Enumclaw…”